Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Forty Seven. An Intercepted Epistle

Urged by the most abject fear, had El Coyote and his three comrades rushed back to their horses, and scrambled confusedly into the saddle.

They had no idea of returning to the jacalé of Maurice Gerald. On the contrary, their only thought was to put space between themselves and that solitary dwelling—whose owner they had encountered riding towards it in such strange guise.

That it was “Don Mauricio” not one of them doubted. All four knew him by sight—Diaz better than any—but all well enough to be sure it was the Irlandes. There was his horse, known to them; his armas de agua of jaguar-skin; his Navajo blanket, in shape differing from the ordinary serapé of Saltillo;—and his head!

They had not stayed to scrutinise the features; but the hat was still in its place—the sombrero of black glaze which Maurice was accustomed to wear. It had glanced in their eyes, as it came under the light of the moon.

Besides, they had seen the great dog, which Diaz remembered to be his. The staghound had sprung forward in the midst of the struggle, and with a fierce growl attacked the assailant—though it had not needed this to accelerate their retreat.

Fast as their horses could carry them, they rode through the bottom timber; and, ascending the bluff by one of its ravines—not that where they had meant to commit murder—they reached the level of the upper plateau.

Nor did they halt there for a single second; but, galloping across the plain, re-entered the chapparal, and spurred on to the place where they had so skilfully transformed themselves into Comanches.

The reverse metamorphosis, if not so carefully, was more quickly accomplished. In haste they washed the war-paint from their skins—availing themselves of some water carried in their canteens;—in haste they dragged their civilised habiliments from the hollow tree, in which they had hidden them; and, putting them on in like haste, they once more mounted their horses, and rode towards the Leona.

On their homeward way they conversed only of the headless horseman: but, with their thoughts under the influence of a supernatural terror, they could not satisfactorily account for an appearance so unprecedented; and they were still undecided as they parted company on the outskirts of the village—each going to his own jacalé.

“Carrai!” exclaimed the Coyote, as he stepped across the threshold of his, and dropped down upon his cane couch. “Not much chance of sleeping after that. Santos Dios! such a sight! It has chilled the blood to the very bottom of my veins. And nothing here to warm me. The canteen empty; the posada shut up; everybody in bed!

“Madre de Dios! what can it have been? Ghost it could not be; flesh and bones I grasped myself; so did Vicente on the other side? I felt that, or something very like it, under the tiger-skin. Santissima! it could not be a cheat!

“If a contrivance, why and to what end? Who cares to play carnival on the prairies—except myself, and my camarados? Mil demonios! what a grim masquerader!

“Carajo! am I forestalled? Has some other had the offer, and earned the thousand dollars? Was it the Irlandes himself, dead, decapitated, carrying his head in his hand?

“Bah! it could not be—ridiculous, unlikely, altogether improbable!

“But what then?

“Ha! I have it! A hundred to one I have it! He may have got warning of our visit, or, at least, had suspicions of it. ’Twas a trick got up to try us!—perhaps himself in sight, a witness of our disgraceful flight? Maldito!

“But who could have betrayed us? No one. Of course no one could tell of that intent. How then should he have prepared such an infernal surprise?

“Ah! I forget. It was broad daylight as we made the crossing of the long prairie. We may have been seen, and our purpose suspected? Just so—just so. And then, while we were making our toilet in the chapparal, the other could have been contrived and effected. That, and that only, can be the explanation!

“Fools! to have been frightened at a scarecrow!

“Carrambo! It shan’t long delay the event. To-morrow I go back to the Alamo. I’ll touch that thousand yet, if I should have to spend twelve months in earning it; and, whether or not, the deed shall be done all the same. Enough to have lost Isidora. It may not be true; but the very suspicion of it puts me beside myself. If I but find out that she loves him—that they have met since—since—Mother of God! I shall go mad; and in my madness destroy not only the man I hate, but the woman I love! O Dona Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos! Angel of beauty, and demon of mischief! I could kill you with my caresses—I can kill you with my steel! One or other shall be your fate. It is for you to choose between them!”

His spirit becoming a little tranquillised, partly through being relieved by this conditional threat—and partly from the explanation he had been able to arrive at concerning the other thought that had been troubling it—he soon after fell asleep.

Nor did he awake until daylight looked in at his door, and along with it a visitor.

“José!” he cried out in a tone of surprise in which pleasure was perceptible—“you here?”

“Si, Señor; yo estoy.”

“Glad to see you, good José. The Doña Isidora here?—on the Leona, I mean?”

“Si, Señor.”

“So soon again! She was here scarce two weeks ago, was she not? I was away from the settlement, but had word of it. I was expecting to hear from you, good José. Why did you not write?”

“Only, Señor Don Miguel, for want of a messenger that could be relied upon. I had something to communicate, that could not with safety be entrusted to a stranger. Something, I am sorry to say, you won’t thank me for telling you; but my life is yours, and I promised you should know all.”

The “prairie wolf” sprang to his feet, as if pricked with a sharp-pointed thorn.

“Of her, and him? I know it by your looks. Your mistress has met him?”

“No, Señor, she hasn’t—not that I know of—not since the first time.”

“What, then?” inquired Diaz, evidently a little relieved, “She was here while he was at the posada. Something passed between them?”

“True, Don Miguel—something did pass, as I well know, being myself the bearer of it. Three times I carried him a basket of dulces, sent by the Doña Isidora—the last time also a letter.”

“A letter! You know the contents? You read it?”

“Thanks to your kindness to the poor peon boy, I was able to do that; more still—to make a copy of it.”

“You have one?”

“I have. You see, Don Miguel, you did not have me sent to school for nothing. This is what the Doña Isidora wrote to him.”

Diaz reached out eagerly, and, taking hold of the piece of paper, proceeded to devour its contents.

It was a copy of the note that had been sent among the sweetmeats.

Instead of further exciting, it seemed rather to tranquillise him.

“Carrambo!” he carelessly exclaimed, as he folded up the epistle. “There’s not much in this, good José. It only proves that your mistress is grateful to one who has done her a service. If that’s all—”

“But it is not all, Señor Don Miguel; and that’s why I’ve come to see you now. I’m on an errand to the pueblita. This will explain it.”

“Ha! Another letter?”

“Si, Señor! This time the original itself, and not a poor copy scribbled by me.”

With a shaking hand Diaz took hold of the paper, spread it out, and read:—

Al Señor Don Mauricio Gerald.

Querido amigo!

Otra vez aqui estoy—con tio Silvio quedando! Sin novedades de V. no puedo mas tiempo existir. La incertitud me malaba. Digame que es V. convalescente! Ojala, que estuviera asi! Suspiro en vuestros ojos mirar, estos ojos tan lindos y tan espresivos—a ver, si es restablecido vuestra salud. Sea graciosa darme este favor. Hay—opportunidad. En una cortita media de hora, estuviera quedando en la cima de loma, sobre la cosa del tio. Ven, cavallero, ven!

Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos.

With a curse El Coyote concluded the reading of the letter. Its sense could scarce be mistaken. Literally translated it read thus:—

“Dear Friend,—I am once more here, staying with uncle Silvio. Without hearing of you I could not longer exist. The uncertainty was killing me. Tell me if you are convalescent. Oh! that it may be so. I long to look into your eyes—those eyes so beautiful, so expressive—to make sure that your health is perfectly restored. Be good enough to grant me this favour. There is an opportunity. In a short half hour from this time, I shall be on the top of the hill, above my uncle’s house. Come, sir, come!

“Isidora Covarubio De Los Llanos.”

“Carajo! an assignation!” half shrieked the indignant Diaz. “That and nothing else! She, too, the proposer. Ha! Her invitation shall be answered; though not by him for whom it is so cunningly intended. Kept to the hour—to the very minute; and by the Divinity of Vengeance—

“Here, José! this note’s of no use. The man to whom it is addressed isn’t any longer in the pueblita, nor anywhere about here. God knows where he is! There’s some mystery about it. No matter. You go on to the posada, and make your inquiries all the same. You must do that to fulfil your errand. Never mind the papelcito; leave it with me. You can have it to take to your mistress, as you come back this way. Here’s a dollar to get you a drink at the inn. Señor Doffer keeps the best kind of aguardiente. Hasta luejo!”

Without staying to question the motive for these directions given to him, José, after accepting the douceur, yielded tacit obedience to them, and took his departure from the jacalé.

He was scarce out of sight before Diaz also stepped over its threshold. Hastily setting the saddle upon his horse, he sprang into it, and rode off in the opposite direction.